Part 2: Can Government Eugenics be Justified?
In the first part of this essay (Quadrant, May 2015) I adopted a libertarian stance on private reproductive choices and recommended a regulatory role for government aimed at curtailing excesses. Informed citizens can generally be trusted to make wise choices regarding negative eugenics, the weeding out of deleterious mutations. I argued that positive eugenics – the attempt to improve beyond good health – should be closely regulated to prevent the minority-positive scenario of an elite caste. A caveat is that it would be natural and adaptive for parents to choose embryos that will grow into competitive children. Those choices would not disrupt family ties because the chosen individuals would have the same genetic kinship as a naturally produced child. (That is not necessarily true of germline engineering, editing of DNA). Positive eugenics aside, state interference in reproductive choices should be minimised because it restricts individual freedom. For that reason I recommend that governments muddle through, allowing positive eugenics choices when they are available to all, while restricting extreme choices and keeping a wary eye on artificial meddling with genes. Whether this mix of liberal and censorial approaches is wise depends on, firstly, the extent to which people make responsible choices, and secondly, whether positive eugenics practised by a minority would divide society and endanger its viability as an open national community.
Libertarian values imply a presumption against government-led eugenics. In the following discussion I examine this presumption and suggest that with adequate care small-scale government-led eugenics can be configured so as not to threaten civil liberties.
Two ethical criteria will be used in this section, secular and Christian, both of which advance universal standards of civil liberties universal but at the minimum these are private values appropriately emphasised in Western civilisation where they were developed and had a formative influence. From both these perspectives government-initiated authoritarian eugenics has often turned out badly by violating individual rights with questionable results. Three generations of “imbeciles” is preferable to dictatorship by experts.
Any ethical examination of eugenics must take a position on abortion, as discussed in the first part of this article. The Christian rejection of abortion has been a basis of persistent and honourable criticism of eugenics. Suffice it to reiterate that IVF methods reduce the issue to the termination of blastocytes of about 100 cells.
The eugenics that is unfolding in Australia and around the world is not following the authoritarian model. It consists of voluntary genetic screening, the resulting market in reproductive services regulated by laws as are other markets. Government initiative is limited to providing prospective parents with information and medical assistance when requested. The trend is towards a combination of reactive governments and active citizens, the most promising formula for preserving individual rights. This is put into context by the typology shown in Table 2. The four cells show likely risk to civil liberties based on whether citizens or government take the initiative.
The question whether government-directed eugenics is ever justified can be broken down into the four scenarios shown in Table 2. These simplify reality by limiting demand to citizens and government. Other actors are not represented in Table 2, such as religious leaders, businesses that sell reproductive advice or services and the cultural leaders in education and the media that shape perceptions. However, the scenarios represent two potentially important sources of demand.
E – Mass market +
Mix of proactive and reactive strong regulation
F – Mass market +
Reactive weak regulation
G – Elite market +
Proactive strong regulation
H – Elite market +
Table 2. Types of demand for eugenics and likely regulatory regimes
In E an activist government is counterbalanced by an active citizenry. It is conceivable that government, though taking initiatives, would also be responsive to popular demand. Initially the class most likely to be active is the professional middle class, due to resources and knowledge of eugenics options.
F would see a passive government responsive to citizen demand. As argued above, it would be a relatively safe way for eugenics to develop, though not immune to invidious outcomes.
G is the combination most threatening to civil liberties. An active government directing a passive citizenry might curtail reproductive choices, as occurred in the past with forced sterilisations.
H is closest to the present situation, with most citizens as well as government passive. There is some citizen demand for IVF and related services, some pressure for regulation from ethicists, and some collateral influence from parties lined up on both sides of the abortion issue. But overall the situation is quiet. This is a relatively safe situation for civil liberties so long as passivity and balance remain, a situation that could be undermined should a minority adopt positive eugenics. A minimalist type of government initiative compatible with present sentiment is suggested by Professor Bob Williamson of Melbourne University, in which genomics is taught to senior school students to equip citizens to make appropriate choices.
The developing eugenics market in Australia and the West is not without its critics. In a recent Quadrant article, medical researcher Philip Burcham criticised genetic counselling services offered at Australian hospitals. He correctly identified the services as a form of eugenics but, less plausibly, accused counsellors of showing prejudices analogous to those that marked the eugenics movement in the United States and even Nazi Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Burcham’s article is a useful starting point for discussing the ethics of modern eugenics. His argument has immediacy because he grounds his remarks in personal experience. He and some other members of his family carry a mutation that causes a mild form of osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. His experience allows us to view liberal eugenics services from the perspective of clients, or victims if Burcham is correct.
Burcham objects to genetic counsellors who advise people to abort foetuses that bear mild disabilities such as his. He is opposed to abortion on principle but also argues that in the case of his and other moderate conditions the procedure defies the utilitarian criteria on which eugenics is based. Abortion would have deprived society of several family members with brittle bone disease who have been productive workers never on welfare. Their economic and human contributions have been well worth the modest medical costs involved.
Opposition to abortion is central to Burcham’s argument, as it has been for other conservative opponents of eugenics such as the late senator Brian Harradine. He implies that the procedure is justified only under compelling circumstances, which do not include his family’s mild condition. Many will sympathise with this position. He rightly dismisses the recommendation made by bioethicists such as Peter Singer, that babies may be euthenised up to twelve months of age whose lives are deemed to be not worth living. Julian Savulescu, a past doctoral student of Singer and now a professor at Oxford, supports abortion under any circumstances, arguing that foetuses have no right to life and may be killed on a whim.
Burcham’s compassion and protectiveness and the anger thus generated against “a doctor on a mission to destroy my offspring” are authentic; it is an arresting criticism. He draws attention to the Christian opposition to abortion, a moral issue ignored in much of the eugenics literature. Burcham’s description of unprofessional rudeness shown by a genetic counsellor helps us imagine the evil of authoritarian eugenics, though no evidence is presented linking Australian doctors with Nazi policies.
A weakness of Burcham’s criticism is that pre-implantation screening does not entail abortion of foetuses, termination being limited to blastocytes of a few dozen cells. Neither does he show that genetic counsellors are typically arrogant. A more important weakness of these criticism is that they fail to tackle core eugenics values. Burcham himself provides reasons for parents to try to save their children from brittle bone disease and other debilitating genetic conditions. Sufferers – and the word is appropriate – have characteristic head shapes, skeletal morphology and poor hearing. Burcham experienced about 15 fractures in his youth. Some resulted in permanent skeletal deformities. On one occasion at school he engaged in an arm wrestle causing his right arm to snap with a sound like gunshot. When his daughter was ten months old and learning to walk, she snapped a tibia and fell screaming to the floor. Burcham was “distraught” on hearing news of this event. He had hoped that despite her small stature she was free of the mutated gene.
How can such disability not arouse the wish to screen out errant genes? Burcham avoids this conclusion by asserting that doing so would remove loved ones and productive members of society. He has a point if the procedure entails abortion or denies the chance to have further children. But pre-implantation screening does not abort foetuses or prevent couples from having children; it screens out dangerous mutations.
In the end Burcham fails to land a blow on the eugenics goal, as opposed to authoritarian methods for achieving it and the utilitarian ethics behind those methods. Compassion for ill and disadvantaged children is a common motive for eugenics – evident in the media reports reviewed in the first part of this essay. Like many social policies, eugenics can be achieved in different ways, some appropriate, some not. Emerging technologies are expanding our options. Even mild genetic disorders might be worth eliminating if the methods are inexpensive and harmless.
Burcham implies a basis for evaluating government-initiated eugenics – the reciprocal relationship between individual citizens and society. He emphasises that his condition has not put an undue burden on the public purse due to medical expenses or welfare. Affected family members have been net contributors to the common weal. This points to the moral force of reciprocity between individuals and their communities, an ethic very different to the cold principle of utilitarianism. He asserts, plausibly, that his family is not unduly indebted to the taxpayer and offers that as a reason why those representing the public interest have no warrant to interfere in his family’s reproductive choices.
Reciprocity is an implicit underlying condition for the provision of government services. Terms such as “mutual obligation” recur in discussions of services, especially in response to generosity or sacrifice by one party. It is generally conceded that soldiers who give their lives in war deserve not only remembrance but public care for their families. Mutual obligation also qualifies the unreciprocated largesse of the welfare state. In Germany, which inaugurated state welfare in the late nineteenth century, adult children can be required to supplement their parents’ aged pension. In Australia, supporters of work-for-the-dole schemes justify them by appealing to reciprocity. Another welfare scheme, the Abbott government’s proposal for generous paid parental leave, has accumulated conditions, such as the requirement that recipients return to work and thus repay their benefit in taxes.
While reciprocity between individuals and society is important, any effect on policy must be squeezed into spaces left over by absolute rights against coercive eugenics. Retention of those civil liberties is incompatible with direct state regulation of basic reproductive decisions, especially choice of the individuals with whom our children are conceived. Civil libertarians generally oppose governments coercing reproductive choices, even when great benefits might result. If anyone has a right to edit children’s genomes, it is their parents.
At the same time, eugenic side effects of government policies serving legitimate functions would benefit society as a whole.
Incompatibilities of eugenics and civil liberties is mainly a problem for government-directed programs. That problem would largely disappear were the government’s role limited to regulating the market in eugenics services, in which case the initiative in making reproductive choices would remain with individuals and families.
Another reason choice should remain with parents is that they have the most interest, emotional and genetic, in their children and are most intensely invested in rearing them.  Respecting the prerogatives of parents would limit government’s regulatory role to curbing only those choices known to be dangerous for children or society. And as noted, government could also provide information to allow citizens to make informed choices.
It might be asserted that taking government out of eugenics does not eliminate the evil inherent in that enterprise, that citizen-initiated screening of mutations is also immoral. Perhaps only natural or God-ordained reproduction should be permitted. A problem with this view is that spontaneous mate choice behaviour is already skewed towards obtaining good genes for offspring. As a recent summary of the literature on evolutionary anthropology puts it, “[p]eople . . . seek the most favourable mates, which are the ones who will provide their offspring with the best genes”.
Human mate choice has eugenic components, directed by instinct and culture. For example, a well developed theory in evolutionary psychology is that aspects of sexual attractiveness signal strong immune systems. Symmetry is a component of attractiveness and is in part the outcome of strong immune systems. Symmetrical individuals also have more pleasing body odour. Studies show that people are most attracted to the body odour of individuals not closely related to them. It is thought that this is an adaptive mechanism for steering individuals away from conceiving children with blood relatives, which can result in inbreeding depression due to combinations of deleterious recessive gene. Body odour influences choice of mate because it signals the genetic makeup of the Major Histocompatibility Complex, the genetic basis of the immune system. Humans are also influenced by an instinctive mechanism for avoiding incest, first described by the Finnish sociologist Edward Westermarck. Close association in childhood, such as between brothers and sisters in the same household, usually results in aversion to sexual contact later in life. Sexual repulsion between first degree blood kin is a universal human tendency, greatly facilitated by rearing in the family. Westermarck argued that incest taboos, though culturally articulated and transmitted, have a common origin in innate aversion. Despite this innate origin, taboos are culturally variable. Traditional Australian Aborigines have one of the most elaborate incest-avoiding cultures.
The “handicap principle”, formulated by Israeli scientist Amotz Zahavi, is a widely accepted evolutionary theory based on the idea that mate choice involves the search for good genes via “honest signalling” of genetic characteristics. The search for good genes will never end because mutations crop up in every generation. As noted earlier, humans need to keep evolving just to keep the mutation load down, a need that selected for eugenic preferences when choosing a mate.
It follows that spontaneous behaviour with eugenic effects is part and parcel of being human. It is not evidence of bad intentions, unless the incest taboo and universal standards of beauty and attractiveness are to be condemned. Nathaniel Comfort, Professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, calls this the “eugenic impulse”. Eugenic goals are anything but evil. People everywhere wish to combat disease, live longer, be more intelligent and socially adept. The question is how to do so prudently and morally.
The deep involvement of eugenic processes in human behaviour and culture suggest that criticism of state-directed eugenics has sometimes been exaggerated. Even at the height of eugenics’ popularity, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the worst excess – compulsory sterilisation – was a small part of the state’s eugenics policies. Legislation was usually benign and merely extended traditional eugenics concerns, for example with avoiding incest and the resulting inbreeding depression. In the United States eugenics-like considerations affected the granting of marriage licences. Still today couples are required to obtain a marriage licence as a precondition for legal marriage. Regulations vary by state, but it was normally required for couples intending marriage to have a blood test to prevent “blue babies” caused by incompatible blood groups. In the early part of the century the condition was fatal to the neonate. Although the condition is now preventable and treatable regardless of blood group, the attendant risks cause some U.S. states still to require a blood test before granting a marriage licence. Other eugenics-like preconditions for marriage licences, in some states, are a test for sickle-cell anaemia and a declaration that the couple are not close blood relatives or, if they are, that at least one of them is infertile.
Importantly, these marriage laws primarily address public health. Their primary goal was and is health of children, not genetic improvement of family lineages or society. While eugenic in effect, that did not warrant the empowering legislation.
Apart from circumstances of direct health effects, ethical arguments for coercive authoritarian eugenics generally fails. The core argument is that the state is justified in imposing eugenics on individuals whose reproduction would hurt other citizens, for example by raising government expenditure on medicine or welfare or by compromising education. The argument fails because it entails the drastic curtailment of civil liberties, which exposes everyone to tyranny. There might be hypothetical exceptions that make authoritarian eugenics appear reasonable. If the mutation load were to grow so burdensome that it greatly reduced national competitiveness, the viability of the economy or the proportion of creative individuals, government action might be urged. But that situation has not arrived. It is more prudent to adopt a pragmatic response to such challenges: wait for the contingency to arise or be imminent before taking action. The consumer-driven eugenics market may have sufficiently wide effect to forestall the need for state-directed eugenics, perhaps indefinitely.
These arguments against coercive eugenics are compatible with a vigorous market for associated services, so long as citizens give priority to civil liberties.
Current laws indicate how government might be kept from drifting into coercive eugenics. We have already seen how traditional eugenics-like laws are motivated by the wish to prevent suffering and disability. Marriage laws regarding genetic illness and incest are not aimed at improving the gene pool in general but avoiding serious illness in particular future children. Many countries prohibit IVF with pre-implantation screening where non-medical goals are the intended primary effect. The procedure is permitted to save children from suffering severe genetic disease. Like traditional marriage laws, the legitimate goal is health but there is also a eugenic secondary effect of reducing the gene pool’s mutation load. The latter outcome, though it benefits society, is deemed insufficient justification.
The moral distinction between primary and secondary effects resembles the Catholic principle of double effect. The principle is worth exploring as a practical ethic to guide governments away from coercive eugenics. The principle was first stated by the Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, who argued that harming an assailant is justified in self defence if the harm done is necessary to and a side effect of defence, not a goal in its own right. For harm to be justified it must not be a means to a desired end other than defence. And the secondary harm must be proportional to the primary benefit. One may slap a pickpocket’s hand but not remove it. Government eugenics stands to meet the criterion when it does not violate civil rights and provides public goods. The principle rules out utilitarian means-end calculus as justification for harming people.
Catholic theologians have applied double effect to judge the killing of non-combatants in times of war. The principle is that killing civilians is only excusable as unintended collateral damage. For example, bombing a civilian neighbourhood would be unjust if the aim were to harm the residents. That is terrorism. But the same harm might be justified if the aim were to attack important military assets placed in the neighbourhood. The principle can be applied to government action that limits the fertility of selected citizens, harming their fitness and liberty. If the principle held in this situation, the action would only be justified by a beneficial primary effect sufficient to motivate the policy and if the harm were unintended. That would seem to rule out the notorious eugenics policies of the twentieth century that treated people as means to an end.
A possible example of a primary effect with a eugenic double effect is Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s proposed policy of paid parental leave. The policy is meant to compensate high-earning women more for having children than low-earning women. The policy might inadvertently promote the reproduction of higher IQ women, which would be eugenic. It might also have the opposite effect, perhaps by penalising women who put family before male-type careers despite possessing the requisite talents, but that does not invalidate the point being made, which is that if the overall effect were eugenic then this would be a case of eugenics being justified by double effect. The morality cuts both ways. If the primary effect were immoral, as many argue in this case, any eugenic effect would not bolster it as a warrant for government to proceed with the measures.
Examples of immoral eugenics are not hard to find, as described earlier. In these cases the right to procreate was infringed by coercive bureaucracy; indeed, the violation of that freedom constituted the core of the abuse directed against them. This seems to confirm the view that a condition for justifying coercive policies that have eugenic effects is that eugenics is not a necessary or sufficient goal of the policy. In other words, legitimate government eugenics can only be an unintended side effect of other policies. That includes the public health measures of marriage laws concerning incest and cases where individuals have a compulsory reciprocal duty (not one based on eugenic factors) to limit their number of offspring.
There is some incongruence between double effect and eugenics. The principle applies to mandatory, coercive policies. Ethical restraint on government policy should be less stringent in the case of voluntary eugenics policies, such as provision of incentives instead of punishments. In that case would eugenics need to remain a double effect? Could it ever become the primary goal of policy and remain ethical? The question does not apply to provision of approved eugenics services for those who want them, because the initiative would come mainly from citizens, as in cells F and H in Table 2, where government regulates consumer demand. It does apply to governments setting eugenics goals, as in cells E and G in Table 2, in which government imposes socialised eugenics.
Another incongruence is due to a paradox. An implication of the principle, as formulated here, is that a policy’s dysgenic effects should not count against it. (Dysgenic is the opposite of eugenic–choices or processes that promote genetic disease or disability.) This follows from the analogy between eugenic effect and collateral damage, like bombing civilians. But eugenics is a public good, a social sweetener whose risk is tyranny, not killing. The paradox would be removed if the principle were relaxed to allow governments to take eugenic efficacy into effect in evaluating policies. The core principle would be preserved–of candidate policies not being justified by non-eugenics criteria alone. Eugenics goals would not be sufficient to justify a candidate policy choice. The eugenic effect would be collateral social benefit. Relaxing the principle in this way would mean that among such candidates the one with the most beneficial secondary effects would be chosen, including eugenic effects. An analogy is a popular type of affirmative hiring that avoids crude reverse discrimination. Candidates are short listed according to merit and the position goes to an individual belonging to a disadvantaged class within that list, if available. The strategy is meant to combine recognition of individual merit with inclusivity that benefits society as a whole.
Does this realistically leave any place for government-initiated eugenics? To suggest an answer I shall consider two proposed schemes for government-directed eugenics. To keep the discussion grounded in contemporary society, the schemes will be considered in the context of a real example of an Anglo Australian family consisting of a mother and ten children. The family came to my attention as the result of a chance meeting with a foster mother caring for some of the children.
Relevant characteristics of the family included the poor state of the children. Authorities had removed all of the children from their biological mother due to neglect, drug and alcohol abuse, and boy friends’ violence directed at the mother. The children were traumatised. All ten had behavioural problems characteristic of neglect – retarded emotional development, violent episodes of uncontrolled anger as well as passivity and hyperactivity, gaze avoidance, dependence on carers and, as adults, early pregnancy and unemployment. The mother had a history of homelessness and multiple partners. The first two men who sired several children between them were unemployed at the time. Two teenage daughters also had children removed by the authorities. The police were often at the family home responding to reports of violence and substance abuse.
The first scheme is to license parenthood. According to Richard Lynn various licensing schemes have been proposed, beginning with Plato in The Republic, written in the fourth century BC. In recent decades scholars have proposed licensing to protect children, not improve the gene pool, though that is a possible side effect. The idea is to prevent delinquent parents from mistreating their children by requiring couples wishing to have children to apply for a licence, which would only be issued to those who were economically independent, without debilitating illness or a record of crimes against children. They would have to pass a course on parenting. Babies born to unlicensed parents would be removed by the authorities for adoption and the parents fined. Lynn points out that the licences would be ignored by many, resulting in policing and adoption on an impracticable scale. Lynn notes that draconian methods would be needed to enforce the licences, methods that violate human rights, for example by coercing the unemployed from conceiving children.
The second scheme is suggested by retired Melbourne doctor Ron Benson, who argues that the relatively high fertility of working age welfare beneficiaries is causing a growing burden on the public purse and contributing to associated social pathologies. Benson has since found that in recent decades the size of this welfare category has grown linearly at the rate of one per cent every five years because, he argues, they are bearing more children than the remainder of the population. He proposes that a payment be offered to welfare beneficiaries and low paid workers to bring their income to near that of the average population wage provided they do not conceive a child while receiving such help.  The payment would be needed because existing benefits are too low to establish reciprocal obligation. The proposal appears to conform to the double effect principle because it is justified by reciprocity between the parents and community, is voluntary and beneficial for society.
Early application of Benson’s policy to the case stated above would have resulted in fewer children if the mother had sought supplementary income. This would have provided her more financial independence from the men who sired further children. Society would have been saved large continuing costs of interventions, crime, special education and child care, already affecting the next generation. If applied across society this would have reduced the number of children in state care, presently numbering 40,000. It would also reduce the frequency of mental illness and the suffering and costs this causes, whether or not dysgenesis is a contributing cause.
Intervention would have been justified without taking eugenics into consideration, satisfying the criterion of double effect. That is just as well because there is no proof that the woman’s behaviour had a genetic cause. It might have been due to poverty or trauma or addiction. It is true that across a number of such cases the probability of genetic causation grows but that does not constitute proof in any particular case. That is another fatal weakness of eugenics policies that coerce citizens without positive proof of need. Benson’s approach avoids that invalidity and injustice because it is justified whatever the cause of the unemployment.
If eugenic goals are irrelevant, why call it a eugenics policy? Is the best eugenics policy simply to administer the family law efficiently and with maximum compassion? To have a eugenics policy worthy of the name necessitates some action special to that goal. One might argue that a eugenics motive, even if not sufficient to justify a policy, would increase the emphasis on limiting fertility, as in relaxed double effect. But it bears reiterating that a factor tending to delegitimise eugenics as a motive in this and other cases is the general impropriety of governments breeding citizens.
It is also relevant that a government-led eugenics policy targeted at dysfunctional families would not be effective in keeping down the overall mutation load because most mutations are carried by normally functioning individuals. Double effect would not apply in mild cases and there are a small number of severe cases. However, such government policy would slow the reproduction of individuals who are the most burdensome for society, the most delinquent in imposing that burden, and the least likely to avail themselves of eugenics services. A government-led program would complement the citizen-initiated eugenics market. This is compatible with this essay’s starting position, that in a liberal democracy government’s principal eugenics role should be to regulate the market in reproductive technology.
Applying the principle of double effect to the provision and regulation of eugenics services would help preserve civil rights while avoiding abuses such as forced sterilisation. It would also keep policy grounded in real issues of some urgency. Keeping authoritative policy responses tied to evidence of non-eugenic need would help protect the public from the excesses of ideology.
Eugenics is set to become a mass market linked to the already-flourishing IVF industry. This should be raising important matters for public discussion but unfortunately public debate about genetic improvement has long been a front of the culture wars. The result has been to retard public education and debate about science, policy and ethics at a time when the market for eugenics services is expanding.
Regarding ethics, wisdom lies with the Christian critics of eugenics who repudiate treating humans as means to ends. Regarding government, the safest response to the new market eugenics is to leave choices to parents but regulate where necessary to protect children and social cohesion. Schools should inform future citizens about the reproductive facts of life and how they affect individuals and society. Government-led eugenics risks civil liberties and should be limited to secondary effects of policies justified by social reciprocity.
Acknowledgment. I thank T. H. Salter for proof reading this lengthy article.
 In 1927 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state right to compulsorily sterilise the intellectually disabled (Buck versus Bell). Chief justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summarised the decision with the words: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
 E.g. Israel in the early 21st century had four times the number of fertility clinics per capita than the U.S., offering disease-prevention testing and subsidised treatment. Glad, J. (2008). Future human evolution: Eugenics in the twenty-first century. Schuylkill Haven, PA, Hermitage. Abridged edition: http://www.whatwemaybe.org/txt/txt0000/Glad.John.2008.FHE.Meisenberg-abridgement.r004.en.pdf, p. 137.
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 See Harradine’s valedictory speech to Parliament in 2005: http://newsweekly.com.au/article.php?id=2143. A long-serving independent Tasmanian senator, Harradine died in April 2014. He had opposed abortion and euthanasia and connected these to eugenics.
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